When jokes fail, do people think worse of the person who told them?
A lot depends on whether that person was Brad or Brenda.
Humor can lighten moods, lower guards and raise group cohesion. But it isn’t without risk. People have lost their jobs after botching a joke badly. At the very least, audiences ding people whose gags turn out to be gaffes.
But the consequences of messing up jokes don’t fall equally on men and women. In our research, we’ve found that women are more likely to get a pass for a failed attempt at humor. When their jokes fell flat, women were seen as more likable, competent and even funnier than men.
This discovery stands apart from—and doesn’t come close to mitigating—all the evidence showing that women are often evaluated more harshly for mistakes than men in many professional settings. For instance, should a female chief of police respond too cautiously to a protest, the public responds more harshly than to a male chief who does the same.
Stereotypes, as usual, are the root cause of the different reactions to humor. People expect women to nurture and build connections, and men to take charge. People also see the work environment as a place of aspiration—so, given their beliefs about women, they believe women are a mismatch for many professional settings.
But when the overarching goal of a situation is to connect—whether building a team in the workplace or building a romantic relationship—the same stereotypes favor rather than hamstring women. With bad jokes, observers give women the benefit of the doubt, assuming the best of intentions—that women are trying to connect—while believing that men are just trying to make themselves look good as they try to take charge.
Not so funny
To explore this possibility, we conducted a series of experimental studies with our doctoral student, Alexander Fulmer. In our first study, we told people about a woman, Brenda, or a man, Brad, who was on a first date with someone they had met online and was trying to crack jokes.
The jokes didn’t land, and the date left after the first drink. When we asked our participants to rate the failed joke teller, people evaluated Brenda in this situation as more likable, more competent and more funny than they evaluated Brad.
In another study, we told one group of people about a manager, Rebecca, and another group of people about a manager, Rob, trying to crack jokes while leading a team-building activity with interns. The interns didn’t enjoy the jokes, and two out of six of them left the presentation. As before, participants gave ratings indicating that Rebecca seemed more likable, more competent and funnier than Rob.
But do people always feel this way about women’s and men’s humor? If spontaneous assumptions about men and women are driving these results, then changing the assumptions should change the results as well.
To test this, we put Brenda or Brad back on a date and then explicitly told participants that the teller was trying to crack jokes to make themselves look better. Now, people evaluated Brenda as just as unlikable and incompetent as they evaluated Brad. In essence, women are penalized just as much as men when people have reason to believe that women are trying to make themselves look better by telling jokes.
It appears that people naturally see women’s attempts at humor as appropriately motivated by trying to connect but don’t feel this way about men’s goals in using humor. As a consequence, even when jokes go south, people think that women are being more attentive to their audience than are men, and this leads people to consider women’s humor mistakes to be less grievous than men’s.
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